Souleymane Seye Ndiaye in La Pirogue
It’s been a week since the official opening of the Locarno Film Festival. A week of parties, of late nights and early mornings, of getting lost walking down the labyrinthine, corridor-sized streets of Old Town, of getting lost in the worlds of Leos Carax, Otto Preminger, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, and Craig Zobel. And yet, the opening night of the festival still stands out in a singular way, thanks to two very different films that, strangely, served as interesting bookends to the first day: La Pirogue and The Sweeney.
La Pirogue is a stunning survival tale directed by Moussa Touré about a group of Senegalese immigrants who embark upon a daunting journey across the Atlantic Ocean in a fishing boat, with hopes of reaching Spain and prosperity. Led by a capable but reluctant family-man and captain (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye), the travellers are forced to struggle not only with the elements but with their own darker human impulses.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Sweeney, the latest from British director Nick Love. Where La Pirogue is meditative and methodic, The Sweeney is as bombastic and stylized as its lead actor, Ray Winstone. Played on the gigantic open-air screen of the Piazza Grande on opening night, it was no wonder why the film had been chosen to screen in front of thousands of people – not necessarily because it was important, but because it was “fun.”
And yet, stripping away the obvious differences between the two movies, what was left at the surface was each movie’s idea of what it means to be “a man.” Winstone’s Jack Regan is a cop with unorthodox methods (taking baseball bats to the heads of suspects, for instance), a symbol of the establishment as anti-establishment. He’s a foul mouthed, heavy drinking, middle-aged, slightly overweight hot head who is still miraculously able to run down culprits, hop eight-foot-tall fences, and bed beautiful, much younger women. He breaks all the rules, and for that, we love him.
Ray Winstone (left) and Ben Drew in The Sweeney
Despite its gritty delivery, The Sweeney is a fantasy in every sense of the word, presenting a Western ideal of masculinity that does not always exist in the real world as he does in the film. It is an aspirational movie for those who want to do the right thing by not doing right, a make-believe world that culls its set pieces from action movies of yesteryear and takes itself way too seriously in the process.
And in a similar way, La Pirogue is a West African fantasy on an ideal man. The first shots of the movie linger on the glistening, muscled bodies of traditional Senegalese wrestlers as they prepare for a fight – highlighting a physical epitome of the body that’s echoed throughout the movie through the noble actions of Baye Laye, the film’s protagonist. Where Jack Regan is a loose cannon who will use violence as the quickest way to get his point across, Baye Laye is an observer, a watcher, a man whose every move seems to be determined not by impulse but by the slow turning of the cogs and wheels in his mind.
There is unsurprisingly more emotion, more pathos in Baye Laye’s journey than there is in Regan’s – but like Regan he is still a caricature, an idea of a person. He is the strong, silent type who always does the right thing, who always makes the hard choices, who is prepared to take on the burden of other people’s lives rather than worry about his own. He engages with the action of the story, like Regan, as a man who must succeed just by virtue of how much abuse he is willing to take in order to do what’s right.
Perhaps what was so striking about seeing La Pirogue and then The Sweeney just hours later was that, despite coming from two opposite worlds, they showed that these human themes can be found in all shades of cinema. The question remains, then, why certain films get larger platforms on which these themes can be presented.
Zeba Blay (@zblay) is from Accra, Ghana and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is a regular contributor to Digital Spy, Africa Style Daily, and Afropunk, and runs a personal movie blog called Film Memory. (http://filmmemory.tumblr.com/)
More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on FilmLinc.com through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!